INDIANAPOLIS – Buried in the shuffle of papers Saturday, state Democrats approved a non-binding resolution calling for congressional candidates to gather the signatures of at least 200 voters to get on the election ballot.
"I think that the signature requirements create a system where congressional candidates demonstrate that they are willing to put forward the work necessary to run a viable campaign," said Tyler Cooley, a Huntington County precinct committee person and 3rd District Democratic Central Committee treasurer.
Cooley offered the resolution, which came in response to perennial candidate Tommy Schrader’s victory over two other Democrats in the party’s May 3 primary election in northeast Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District.
Schrader, 53, captured his first congressional nomination in five attempts after not campaigning or raising money for the race. He has said he doesn’t work because of a disability and in the past has lived in a Fort Wayne motel.
Schrader could not be reached for comment Monday. He faces Republican state Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, and Libertarian candidate Pepper Snyder of Huntington in the Nov. 8 general election.
Cooley’s resolution was approved unanimously by a committee at the Indiana Democratic Party’s state convention and was then approved by the full body of 2,100 delegates.
"I believe it will discourage perennial candidates who do not intend to run a competitive campaign and only serve as spoilers for candidates who have invested time and money into the process," Cooley said.
Indiana’s ballot access law requires any candidate for governor, U.S. senator or president to gather the signatures of at least 500 registered voters in each of the state’s nine congressional districts, for a total of at least 4,500 signatures.
The requirement gained attention this year after GOP Senate candidate Todd Young appeared to miss the 500 mark by just a few signatures in one congressional district. But a tie vote by the Indiana Election Commission allowed Young to stay on the ballot, and he won his party’s nomination.
Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party, said ballot access should be "as easy as possible, and there’s only so much that government should do to interfere in the process."
"There is some responsibility that you have as a voter in informing yourself of who you’re voting for and who’s on the ticket," Shine said.
He said political party organizations have a responsibility to inform voters about candidates as well.
"We now know the number of uninformed Democrats who voted in the 3rd District in May of 2016, and that is the exact same number who voted for Tommy Schrader. There was no way you could have been informed about the candidate if you voted for him," said Shine, who added that his remark was offered "tongue-in-cheek."
Schrader received 15,267 votes to 12,956 for Democratic organization favorite Todd Nightenhelser of Huntington and 12,487 for John Forrest Roberson of Fort Wayne.
Cooley’s resolution calls for Democratic state officials and lawmakers to push for a minimum requirement of 200 signatures from the congressional district someone seeks to represent.
Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said he supports the idea and thinks the number should be 500 so it is consistent with the requirements for candidates for president, governor and U.S. senator.
"It kind of validates your campaign, shows you have support," he said, noting that at least 10 signatures are required to run for a school board.
"We have people who play games with running for office," GiaQuinta said, adding that it has been talked about before Schrader’s primary win.
Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, chairman of the House Elections Committee, seemed less supportive.
He said the signatures threshold might be too much for congressional candidates running every two years. By comparison, a governor’s term is for four years and a U.S. senator’s term is for six years.
Smith isn’t opposed but would like to hear a conversation about how it would work and the number of signatures that would be required.
"I think it would deter some of the less serious candidates," he said. "I haven’t ever heard of one of these candidates winning so I’m not sure there is a problem. I don’t remember one member of congress being elected who wasn’t qualified."
Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.